Prussian Roulette, anyone?

“Germany’s little sister” - as one tipsy Austrian bashfully describes his home country while propping up the bar on Saturday night – is much better known for its composers than its rock stars. Indeed, the national airline even pipes you on and off with a nice bit of classical.
Its glorious capital city, Vienna, has also been perceived as more of a middle-aged destination than a party town, but Waves is helping to change that. This five-day showcase features an impressive swathe of well-known acts - Zola Jesus, British Sea Power, Photek – as well as a varied array of artists from both sides of the old Iron Curtain. Rather than just re-see the well-known bands, then, it’s much more enlightening to dip in randomly, and indulge in a bit of what I now like to call Prussian Roulette.

(Actually the Austrian Empire was entirely separate from The Kingdom of Prussia and the two major European powers went to war in 1866 over the disputed Schleswig-Holstein territory, a brief but momentous conflict which resulted in a seismic power shift away from Austria, the dissolution of the previous German Federation and the coming-together of the modern Germany territories. But it’s close enough).

The first happy find of the weekend is a band from Bratislava, a city I really should have known more about given that it’s the capital of Slovakia (and by crikey they must be bitter about Prague – you know, like Manchester are about London). They’re called The Uniques, they have a lovely dramatic intro, an infectious synth-pop swagger and the all-important slightly-unhinged lead singer. Excellent.

Rubik, from Finland, I’ve seen before, but they’re always entertaining, and in their more intense moments remind you of a dwarf lumberjack Sigur Ros. Instrumenti, from Latvia, are only disappointing in that they’ve decided not to wear their traditional panda costumes. Instead they’ve come as two Prince Charming-era Adam Ants and make an excellent, distinctly varied noise; I only catch two songs, the first of which sounds like DFA 1979, the second like fey Aussie stand-up Tim Minchin.

Aha! Time for some local boys. No-one seems to have heard of Alasac Duo when I mention them afterwards, but that’s because it’s actually two members of the band A Life, A Song, A Cigarette, playing a little acoustic set in a nice café. Very pleasant it is too, although more exciting is the prospect of the aged landlady getting up afterwards to sing a couple of Greek folk songs, which she’s apparently threatened to do. Sadly I have to head off to catch another band in a venue oddly situated in a traffic island up the road, which is a waste of time as they finished early.

A nice added bonus with Waves – and the inspiration for the festival name – is that many of these gigs take place on boats. The Danube Canal (built to quell the floods when Greenland begins to melt in a few years) is a picturesque offshoot of the actual Danube, and along it are several fine venues.

On one of them – a floating bar/club/restaurant called Badeschiff - are Black Shampoo, who are also Viennese and look like a bit like a young Kim and Thurston. While they aren’t quite Sonic Youth, there are definite signs of promise, particularly the gritty blues number late on that’s vaguely reminiscent of Samuel L Jackson’s version of the old standard ‘Stack-O-Lee’ (Google it… but not the ‘clean’ version).

A brief look at some Britons, on another boat a few feet up the towpath. Glaswegian trio Haight Ashbury are named after San Francisco’s famously free-thinking district, dress like the Mamas and Papas but are actually about as groovy and psychedelic as Theresa May.
Back on dry land, and more Austrians, Die Eternias, who must have entered into some odd pact with Instrumenti. They too are dressed as animals in the programme but have also come in dandyish outfits, something akin to Peter Gabriel’s old garb from his Genesis days: all white faces and ruffs. The music is oddly sedate by comparison, but rather nice, with a big nod towards US country rock.

Next day there seems to be some kind of go-slow occurring, as Estonian band Kreatiivmootor fail to turn up for over an hour, so I head off to see Who Made Who instead. Good decision, as the Danes are just about the finest live band in Europe. No, really. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to miss them until now, they’re a bit like a sort of dance version of The Eagles of Death Metal, all daft taches, dramatic rock-star poses and an occasional minor-celebrity drummer (Josh Homme for The Eagles, DJ Thomas Barfod for Who Made Who, whose track ‘Space to Rent’ was once covered by… Josh Homme). Unlike TEODM, though, Who Made Who are genuinely, fabulously, un-ironically good.

Kreatiivmootor are on so late that I catch a bit of them on the way back, and they’re worth a look: a great sonic onslaught of beats and attitude, like a Baltic version of the Lo Fidelity Allstars.

And to finish, appropriately enough, more Austrians. Despite the name, Destroy, Munich are also in thrall to Americana, if more the Lou Barlow/Stephen Malkmus vintage, and don’t really sound inclined to destroy anything. It’s all a bit weedy and isn’t their greatest gig by all accounts – they too were about an hour late, for no apparent reason – but here too there are fleeting signs of rich promise. And the album, foisted upon me at some point, is a whole lot better.

We wave goodbye to Waves, ears ringing with the sound of music, but definitely not The Sound of Music, which is a whole different kettle of Austrian fish.

Words by Si Hawkins
Photo Credit: Patrick Muennich
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